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Barbecues and cricket on a national holiday that is commemorated every January, cannot overcome the painful beginnings of Australia’s life as a country, writer Erin Walton explains.
Text: Erin Walton
Country: Australia

hen travelling overseas, what I most enjoy about telling people that I’m Australian is their reactions. Usually, a little light bulb goes off in their eyes and a story tumbles out of their mouths about how much they’d love to visit. Then, there are those who turn white as a sheet before managing to ask in a small voice if I’ve ever seen, killed or otherwise had an unfortunate encounter with a crocodile. And every once in a while, someone will ask with a twinkle in their eye, “Didn’t your country start out as a prison?”

Australia is an enormous chunk of a country that sparks the interest of foreigners due to its sunshine, many gorgeous tourist attractions, generally high quality of life and for being a land where everyone has a “fair go.” Australians themselves, are, for the most part, proud of their country and celebrate it each year on Australia Day, 26th January.

Typically celebrated with the ritualistic cooking of great stacks of meat, consumption of sub-par beer, a game of backyard cricket and a crimson case of sunburn, the day is usually a great laugh and an excellent alternative to going to work. However, the idea does cross many minds that these celebrations should be treated carefully, as the date which we remember, the 26th of January, effectively commemorates the anniversary of the beginning of much sorrow and hardship for Australia’s Indigenous population. In fact, it’s referred to by some as “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” for the same reason.

For the Aborigines, white settlement effectively spelled the end of life as they knew it. By anyone’s standards, Aboriginal history (agreed as being between 40,000 – 80,000 years old) is long and was spent in isolation from the outside world. As a result, their culture and health were not prepared for the European invasion. For the Indigenous population, the British arrival was a ticket to illness and, for many, death. Diseases to which the Aboriginal people had no immunity – influenza, chicken pox, small pox, measles and later, venereal diseasesdevastated communities. On the other hand, for the British, their arrival was akin to finding a great expanse of land ready to be “taken” – very easy to do. Because the Aboriginal people had no recognisable written laws, no treaties were signed and the concept of terra nullius (land belonging to no one) was established.

Sadly, this was only the beginning. Massacres followed throughout the years as well as the forced removal of many mixed-race children from their families, now known as the Stolen Generation. Aboriginal standards of health, education and employment have never been on par with those of non-Indigenous Australians, and high levels of drug and alcohol abuse have become widespread problems.

Although the media spread the notion that drinking is a more widespread problem in Aboriginal communities, in fact, the proportion of drinkers in Indigenous populations is no higher than in non-Indigenous populations, and depending on reports, can be lower. Also incorrect is the old-fashioned and widely popular supposition that Indigenous Australians have a “low tolerance” for alcohol. In fact, what can be seen is that while proportionately fewer Indigenous Australians may consume alcohol, binge-drinking is more likely among those who do.

In fact, as Reconciliation Australia notes, “drinking alcohol is well-entrenched in Australian society” and even more so in the country’s early days of white settlement, a time in which “excessive alcohol consumption was rampant” and workers (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) were often paid in alcohol. Heavy drinking was so ingrained, the organisation says, that by 1850, only 62 years after the arrival of the First Fleet on 26th January, Sydney was already home to 13 breweries and 500 pubs.

Indigenous Australians before European colonisation were not strangers to alcohol; however, the fermented, plant-based drinks they prepared were much weaker in comparison with the beer and hard liquor made by the settlers. Creative Spirits tells us that the struggles with alcohol seen in Indigenous communities have stemmed from factors including discrimination, the separation of families and the forced removal of Aborigines from their traditional land. Today, reduced access to high-quality health and education services, high unemployment, low living conditions and a natural “sharing ethos” (the sharing of cars, money, drinks, etc., within a community is common) can “entrench problematic substance abuse in some Indigenous communities.”

“Dry communities,” where a complete ban on alcohol sales and consumption exists, have been tried in several Indigenous communities with generally positive results. According to Creative Spirits, in such communities reports of suicides, hospital admissions and incidents of domestic violence have decreased. The flip side have been cases of “grog sprints,” where drinkers will drive long distances to buy alcohol (increasing their chance of having a car accident), unequipped hospitals having to deal with the negative physical effects of alcohol withdrawal, and drinkers who will simply relocate to the community outskirts or where the ban is not policed or doesn’t exist.

The fact that the Australia Day holiday lies on the date that European colonisation began along with so many social, health and political problems, makes it difficult or impossible for many Indigenous Australians to celebrate it.

Acknowledging 26th January as our national day spawns two trains of thought: The belief that the date is inherently racist and out of step with the aims of a modern country; or that it’s time to “move on” and “look to the future” regardless of what actually happened on the date in question.

In general, as the 26th of January marks the beginning of a long fight for Indigenous rights, it essentially cannot be seen to include all Australians. In fact, writer Peter Wear goes further and suggests that by being irreversibly linked to Australia’s convict history, the date commemorates “Britain’s driving ashore of Australia’s first white citizens in chains.” Taking an extreme view, it could therefore be seen as a day of hardship for all Australians, even for those of European descent.

Kate Ariotti, a history lecturer at the University of Queensland, reminds us that even though Indigenous Australians have protested Australia Day since as long ago as the early 1900s, the media gives these tensions little airtime in modern-day celebrations, choosing instead to exaggerate the idea of Australia Day as a day of pride and inclusivity. The danger, she notes, lies in that this pride can often bleed into jingoism or extreme patriotism.

Aboriginal Australians have made many important steps since European settlement, including the right to vote, the 1967 amendment to the Constitution, steps towards the recognition of land rights, the 1999 inquiry into the Stolen Generation and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to those affected. But there is still ground to be made.

Where do we go from here? Whether or not the date of our national holiday one day changes to mark a more inclusive moment in Australia’s history, the blatant inequalities amongst the Indigenous cannot be denied. Australia, if it wants to maintain its image as the land of the “fair go” – a reputation which in light of these issues, among others, is currently undeserved – must place greater importance on acknowledging these inequalities and truly allowing all Australians – Indigenous, non-Indigenous and recent immigrants – to expect the same standard of life.

A QUICK GUIDE TO AUSTRALIA’S CONVICT BEGINNINGS

The short version of a very long tale is that in the late 18th Century, when the world was still up for grabs and ships navigated the oceans in search of new lands, it was believed that a hypothetical, undiscovered land mass referred to as Terra Australis lay in the difficult seas of the southern hemisphere, “balancing” the northern continents. Dutch and Spanish ships came close to finding it (in fact, the Dutch did briefly land on Australia’s west coast), before the British, headed by James Cook, disembarked on Australian shores in 1770 and claimed it for the British crown.

Britain at this time sentenced people to life in prison at the drop of a hat and subsequently had many more prisoners than it could handle. Conveniently, they’d claimed land all over the world and habitually transported convicts to North America, one of their colonies.

However, this handy practice came to a screeching halt after the newly independent United States refused to accept more prisoners, forcing Britain to find another convict-dumping ground.

Luckily, Cook had claimed them a nice piece of land, and on 26th January, 1788, the First Fleet arrived in Australia, stuffed to the gunnels with convicts and ready to form a penal colony.



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Australia Day .

Australia Day is celebrated every year on January 26th to commemorate the anniversary of the arrival of the British to Australia and its beginning as a country. It is typically celebrated with barbeques, informal games of cricket, and much beer-drinking. People usually get sunburns and have a great time. However, this was also the beginning of a time of much sorrow and hardship for Australia’s Indigenous population. In fact, it’s referred to by some as “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” for the same reason.

The British arrived to find a large expanse of land and to inadvertently spread disease. The Aboriginals had no immunity to the European diseases and many of them died. Many had their land stolen and others died from massacres. Children of mixed-race were stolen from their families. Standards of health, education and employment are still not as good for Aboriginals as for white people.

There is much controversy about this holiday. Many people think Australia Day is racist and out of step with the aims of a modern country but many others think it is an important holiday that should continue to be celebrated.

 

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